This past June, during the annual College of Graduate and Continuing Studies Residency Conference, over 30 students from the military history and history programs joined the staff of the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections for an unique session titled “From Cursive to Keyword: Transformation through Transcription.”
This session was part of a pilot program being run by the archives, to preserve historical documents and make Norwich history more accessible to researchers and the public at large. To do this, the archives staff has been recruiting volunteers to transform handwritten documents into keyword searchable text. This fledgling program is part of a broader trend amongst archivists, special collections, historical societies and museum professionals aimed at preserving what has essentially become a dying art form: handwritten documents.
Why Is Transcription Important?
The transcription—or reproduction—of these handwritten documents into keyword searchable and readable text enables broader access to our history. The progress of the digital age has relegated the handwritten document strictly to the past. Today, we email or text or Tweet our messages to one another. Future historians may find themselves perusing digital archives instead of an archival room, computer files instead of books, blog postings instead of diaries, YouTube videos instead of sketch pads. Fewer and fewer children are now taught the art of cursive writing in school let alone exposed to opportunities to read that writing. The result? Fewer people are able to read some of our most important historical documents— the Magna Carta (1215), the Mayflower Compact (1620), the US Declaration of Independence (1776), etc.
To undertake the massive task of reproducing these documents as computer generated text, more and more archives, museums, and special collections are turning towards a very modern idea: crowdsourcing.
“Crowdsourcing in archives and special collections can take the form of transcribing handwritten documents, indexing genealogical records, identifying people and places in photos, correcting optical character recognition (OCR) errors in digitized newspaper collections, tagging or captioning historical images, adding pictorial content to maps, transcribing oral histories, and much more. The best use of crowdsourcing is when human judgment is required on a large scale in such a way that can be structured into relatively simple, fun tasks. And fun is a key concept here; the gamification of microtasks keeps people coming back for more.” [Source: The Digital Archivist, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: ‘Citizen Archivists’ for the Future]
All of these tasks are structured to do one thing: preserve history for future generations.
[above images] Norwich University online graduate students shown in a From Cursive to Keyword session hosted by the Kretzberg Library staff during the Residency Conference in June 2016.
Want to Try?
You don’t have to be a professional historian to appreciate the preservation of history or even practice the tasks listed above. Below is a small list of currently active crowdsourcing projects whose goal is to preserve one of kind collections for future use. [All of the projects have specific rules and guidelines and some require you to create an account.]
- The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): Citizen Archivist Project
- The Library of Congress: Opening the Photo Vaults Project
- The Smithsonian Institute: Transcription Center
- University of Minnesota: Decoding the Civil War Project
Recently Transcribed Norwich Documents
Megan Liptak, a 2009 graduate of the Masters of Arts in Military History program and now the Residency Conference and Events Coordinator for the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies, has been been volunteering her time with the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections as one of the transcriptionists for the From Cursive to Keyword project. For more information about the Archives, visit the library blog.
Below are some letters she worked on:
Eye witness testimony can be tricky.
Making a donation to the university? Have you considered donating a pirate cannon?
Sending your kids to college can be tough in any era.
content contributed by Megan Liptak